Friday, July 13, 2018

Parashat Masei: Focus

A Message for Parashat Masei 2018
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Nearly half of the pesukim in Parashat Masei are a basic “travel log” of the various journeys of Am Yisrael in the wilderness. Following God’s command, Moshe meticulously recorded each of the forty-two places where the nation stopped.[1] Surprisingly, however, there is hardly any mention of what took place at those stops. Most of the places are instead solely mentioned as part of a long list of locations along the forty-year journey. What lesson can we learn from the mere mention of these many masa’ot?

R. Aharon Lichtenstein z”l, the former rosh yeshivah of Yeshivat Har Etzion, once described his personal path to faith in God. He initially recalled some of the philosophical doubts and difficulties that he experienced in his youth but then explained that his faith was ultimately formed through the various chance “encounters” with God in his life. He wrote:
In part is has been channeled – primarily through talmud Torah…but also through tefillah and the performance of mitzvot…In part it has been random – moments of illumination while getting on a crowded bus or watching children play in a park at twilight.
Stressing the essential role of those experiences to his self-growth, Rav Aharon wrote: “In its totality…whatever the form and content, it has been the ultimate basis of spiritual life.”[2]

R. Lichtenstein explained that although our intellectual assent is essential, at the personal level it is not the key. He movingly stated: “The primary human source of faith is faith itself.”[3] The encounters with God which we desire cannot be anticipated. They are driven by a source of faith which is unscripted and unpredictable. I am convinced, however, that although we cannot will those “chance meetings” with God, we can nonetheless cultivate an approach to life which engenders such encounters.

Charles Lindbergh once described his experience inside the cockpit of The Spirit of St. Louis, which he famously flew across the Atlantic alone. He wrote:
My cockpit is small, and its walls are thin: but inside this cocoon I feel secure, despite the speculations of mind … I become minutely conscious of details in my cockpit – of the instruments, the levers, the angles of construction. Each item takes on a new value. I study weld marks on the tubing…a dot of radiolite on the altimeter’s face…the battery of fuel valves…all such things which I never considered much before, are now obvious and important…I may be flying a complicated airplane, rushing through space, but in this cabin I’m surrounded by simplicity and thoughts set free of time.[4]
Bestselling author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi pointed to Lindbergh’s experience as an ideal approach to engagement with the world. He explained that a focused attention on the environment relieves us of thought about ourselves. Instead of expending energy and time to satisfy our own supposed needs, our attention is set alert to processing information from our surroundings. This stance opens the possibility for an objective vision and an awareness of alternative possibilities.[5]

In order to create an environment for encounter with God in our lives we must similarly shift our attention from internal concerns to thoughts about the external. His presence and approach can only be felt if we are sensitively attuned to our surroundings. Perhaps that is the essential lesson of the Torah’s long list of Am Yisrael’s journey locations in the midbar. A nation that had endured slavery for more than two centuries had become incapable of adjusting their sights from their own pain and suffering to the world around them. They were unaware of and disinterested in their surroundings. The forty-two stops along their journey – most of which were generally uneventful – forced them to pay attention. Each and every one of those locations, then, was significant for their growth. They encountered new surroundings which caused them to search for a world and existence that lay outside of them.

Am Yisrael’s seemingly meaningless journeyings in the midbar opened them to the opportunities for “random moments of illumination” with God. The Torah’s mention of those many masa’ot reminds us that in order to “randomly” experience God in our lives we must shift our focus from its fixed-state on ourselves to the world outside of us.

[1] Based on the Commentary of Ramban to 33:2.
[2] R. Aharon Lichtenstein, Leaves of Faith: The World of Jewish Learning vol. 2 (Jersey City, NJ, 2004), pg. 366.
[3] Ibid., pg, 367.
[4] Charles Lindbergh, The Spirit of St. Louis (New York, NY, 1953), pg. 227-8.
[5] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York, NY, 1990), pg. 204-5.